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Judge Calls Out Prisoners Aid Executive Director

October 19, 2012

A  Baltimore District Court Judge said he would like to be able to force the Executive Director of a defunct non-profit to live for a month in one of his dilapidated apartments, “but I don’t have the authority”

Judge L. Robert Cooper made the remarks on Tuesday, Oct. 16 as he ruled from the bench in a lawsuit filed on behalf of four tenants of Prisoners Aid Association, the 143-year-old non-profit that ceased operations earlier this year. Cooper awarded the tenants about $1,600—money they had paid a property management company last spring—but declined to award damages for their emotional and physical distress.

The case highlights some of the fallout from PAA’s demise, but sheds little light on the reason for the non-profit’s collapse. [“Prisoners Aid Closing Sparks Lawsuits, Recrimination,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 17).

The case began several months ago after a lender called Talbot Consulting sent a letter to the tenants—Joseph  Bean, Kiatrice Pitts, Cynthia Young and Sunni Barksdale—saying they had 60 days to vacate the three-unit building at 102 E. 20th Street. The tenants had been living in squalor there for several months by then, trying to get their landlord—PAA, or its management company, Triple Star Property Management—to repair leaky toilets, damaged ceilings, door locks and a many other problems.

PAA, led since March of 2011 by Frank Marchant, had defaulted on a $114,100 loan from Talbot, and Talbot was moving to foreclose. But Talbot’s owner, Stewart Sachs, offered to make some repairs to the building if the tenants would pay rent they had been withholding. The tenants instead sent letters to Talbot detailing the problems with their units and saying they would withhold rent until repairs were made. Talbot then told them they had to get out, a move the tenants’ lawyer said was retaliatory.

Sachs told the court that his first letter to the tenants was to explain that he is “sympathetic to their living conditions” but “we have no obligation to do anything to the property.” He said the offer was that if they paid rent he would “put the money back into the property.” Later, he added, “I was not going to come out of pocket.”

The 60-day notice to the tenants went out in June, after the letters about the conditions came, Sachs acknowledged, but said one had nothing to do with the other. He says he needed the place vacant for the foreclosure, so he could have it boarded: “I have had four or five fires in properties that were not properly boarded when they became vacant.”

Sachs and companies he controls own several properties that have been featured on the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog. In 2009 Sachs agreed to pay $10,000  to Howard County prosecutors to settle a mortgage fraud case involving an alleged foreclosure rescue scam. Under the agreement, “Sachs and Heavyweight [Title Co.] agreed not to do any commercial lending in Howard County for three years and to never use ‘unfair deceptive trade practices’ again in the county,” the Sun reported.

Plaintiffs in the Baltimore case said Sachs was just as responsible as PAA and Triple Star, the property management company founded by Mark Brown earlier this year. Brown also acted as the leasing agent and collected rents in person, according to testimony.

According to the suit, Brown told tenants that problems would be fixed, but never fixed them. The three one-bedroom apartments, renting for $550 per month, are in bad shape, according to testimony.

Pitts, who has been pregnant for most of the time she’s lived in apartment A of the building, told the judge that a recent break-in has made her nervous. “Someone pulled the gate to my window,” she said. “I don’t know how they pulled it off, but they did.” She said she thinks it’s life threatening  even though a police officer disagreed: “My blood pressure is so high.”

Citing the emotional stress of living in a leaky, unsecure building under the threat of eviction, plaintiffs’ lawyer Matt Hill of the Public Justice Center asked for damages of $7,000 for each of three tenants and $9,000 for the fourth one.

Judge Cooper found Sachs, as a lender, was not responsible, despite the efforts of Hill to show that he “stepped into the shoes” of PAA and Triple Star.

“Prisoner’s Aid [PAA], Mark Brown and Triple Star are the liable parties in this scenario,” Judge Cooper ruled, adding that the building was “improperly rented” without certification as an apartment building by PAA, then a $2 million-a-year non-profit with strong ties to city government.

“As far as other damages for living in squalor like that, I have been thinking about this case ever since the first day it came before me,” the judge said. “Is there any way I could order Mr. Marchant and Mr. Brown to live in that apartment for a month—is the only equitable damage I could come up with. And I don’t have the authority to do that.”

Marchant says he understands why a judge might say what he did, but that he, and PAA, were out of the picture by early May, when Sachs’ company told PAA it was taking over the building “and basically for us to stay out as they were collecting all rents from that date forward,” Marchant writes in an email reply to City Paper’s questions.

Before that happened, he says, “All of the monies from tenant security deposits and any rent paid up to May went back into fixing and repairing the property.” With no money coming in either from the city or the tenants, PAA could not do more, he says. Talbot, meanwhile “did nothing” except tell the tenants to get out in 60 days. “Instead of leaving these people find a lawyer and sue PAA!”

Marchant says he was placed in an untenable position by PAA’s previous management, which was apparently renting this building and others illegally, with the tacit approval of Baltimore Homeless Services, which he says was supposed to inspect each unit before any new lease was signed. “When I took over PAA all of the places were in shambles, held together with spit and glue,” he writes. “After [city] funding stopped and tenants wouldn’t pay I had nothing to work with. I told all of the renters I would not hold them to their leases. The truth is they all have such a bad history of paying rent nobody else would have them as a tenant. So, they stayed there free!”

On October 5 the city condemned and boarded up a PAA apartment building on Marjorie Lane, according to this Fox 45 story.

Back in court, Hill asked the judge if, under the law, he was ruling that “damages for emotional stress are unrecoverable.”

“Not that it’s unrecoverable,” Cooper replied, “but that I don’t know what number to put on it. I can’t come up with a reasonable number.”

So the damages were set at zero.

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